10 Richard Hamelin ChopinChopin: 24 Preludes
Charles Richard-Hamelin
Analekta AN 2 9148 (analekta.com/en)

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
–Ernest Hemingway

Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin is well on his way to becoming a Canadian national treasure. In fact, he likely already is. Though he also works with collaborators in recordings, the solo stage is where Richard-Hamelin’s talent originated and where it remains most impressive to date. (His performances of the Chopin ballad cycle are now in the annals of recent musical history – a show “to tell your friends about.”) The newest recording from Richard-Hamelin modestly juxtaposes Chopin’s Preludes, Op.28 with the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22.

At once, the opening preludes of Op.28 deliver something unexpected. It’s what is not there that seems more notable than what is. Richard-Hamelin plays this music in an earnest and brave language that is difficult to comprehend at first. There is such a brazen lack of the self that the listener feels as if they are missing something. Too many pianists of our day move their egos to the fore in performance; not Richard-Hamelin. He glides through this miraculous set of miniatures with a devotional vision, as if the very composer himself were at the keyboard. 

The Grande Polonaise is equally unexpected in its freshness and lucidity. Open and honest, this music lilts with a simplicity of means that awakens subtler forms of beauty. One trusts that this is just another iteration – among many – on a long road that Richard-Hamelin will tread. His life and career will bear witness to a multitude of beautiful things as he climbs towering mountains of musicianship, one true sentence at a time. As listeners, he does the work for us, conjuring and shepherding, as we are effortlessly carried to the summit view, ’pon wings of pianistic gold.

12 Ravel SylvestreRavel
Jean-Philippe Sylvestre
ATMA ACD2 2773 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The charismatic and rakish Jean-Philippe Sylvestre has released an album of music he knows well and truly: solo piano works of Maurice Ravel. And for some extra flair and curiosity, Sylvestre recorded on an 1854 Érard piano.

Seemingly, the decision to deliver two major cycles from Ravel’s catalogue in and of itself was an easy one, but the unusual fancy for a historic instrument here serves as the surprise. Such a shift brings welcome change – crystal clear lines and sonorities emerge from this piano, nearly two centuries old. We are greeted with colourful music-making in a mode that never suggests museum vaults or relic hunting. ’Tis a newfangled lens through which to hear this music and one can’t help feeling closer to Ravel.

Sylvestre’s interpretations reveal an artist’s singular reconceiving of beloved repertoire: having learned it, put it away, then re-learned and now un-learned so as to match the demands of an older instrument few are accustomed to playing. At times, the mid-19th-century Érard does hinder the execution, with reduced reverb available and less hammer/damper agency. The performer must work many times harder to achieve the usual results begot from a modern piano. But the efforts seem worth it for Sylvestre as he achieves quirky moments of expressive beauty, textural novelty and uncanny sonorities. An example is the Alborada del grazioso, with its chiselled, wood-like clarity and revelatory repeated notes, speckled with equal parts dust and morning dew.

13 Vittorio ForteEarl Wild: [Re]Visions
Vittorio Forte
Odradek Records ODRCD399 (vittorioforte.com)

Proclaimed “a tribute to the great musician on the tenth anniversary of his death,” a disc from newbie Italian pianist, Vittorio Forte, celebrates an impressive assortment of transcriptions from the late great American keyboard virtuoso Earl Wild.

Opening with the oft-heard Harmonious Blacksmith Variations by Handel, Forte thrusts the listener into the heartiest of renditions with an unexpected quantity of octaves and thickly voiced figures. Wild’s take on the original Handel is, after all, a dated one but Forte seems to relish this peripheral brand of pianism. With such technical command as he possesses, we get caught up in Forte’s excitement, not to mention the sheer tunefulness of Handel’s music. By its conclusion, one laments the end: what if Wild had written a variation or two of his own?

The album’s centrepiece is a collection of transcriptions of songs by Rachmaninoff.  Wild earned a reputation for these gorgeous little things and Forte takes up the mantle with admirable aplomb. Naysayers might argue that pianists have enough original Rachmaninoff in the catalogue to satisfy and, consequently, dispraise the pillaging of song repertoire for the sake of yet more piano music. The rest of us are just grateful that Wild did what he did, creating felicitous versions of several Rachmaninoff songs. Indeed, the Russian master himself made arrangements of at least two of his own songs for solo piano, offering them as encores in recitals. And so Wild – and Forte – remain in safe (and inspired) company.

14 Bruce LevingstonPrelude to Dawn
Bruce Levingston
Sono Luminus DSL-92245 (sonoluminus.com) 

Highlights for me of pianist Bruce Levingston’s Prelude to Dawn are the variation works that begin and end the recording. Brahms’ challenging arrangement for left-hand piano of Bach’s violin Chaconne in D Minor is played securely, from the perfectly voiced rolled chords of the theme onward. Through great variety of articulation and tone colour, the work’s 64 variations remain fascinating and in character. Levingston’s pedalling is especially good in clarifying bass, melody, inner parts and chord structure. The same is true in the Theme and Variations in D Minor, Op.18b, Brahms’ piano arrangement of the profound second movement from his B-flat Major String Sextet. Here Levingston captures the disturbing mood of a broken-up version of the theme in bringing the disc to a moving close.

As for the other pieces, preludes one and two from Wolfgang Rihm’s early Six Preludes are unexpected but effective choices. I especially like the pianist’s pacing and control of dynamics in the spare No.2, with its very low notes suggesting tolling bells. Originally for lute or harpsichord, Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat Major is unique. Levingston’s flowing prelude and the meticulously articulated fugue with its unusual broken-chord interlude especially captured my interest. Two chorale preludes, the Bach-Busoni Sleepers, Awake and Brahms’ organ masterpiece Herzlich tut mich verlangen add to the disc’s pensive mood. Indeed, recent trying times are a subtext here, but so are notes of passion and hope in Prelude to Dawn.

Listen to 'Prelude to Dawn' Now in the Listening Room

16 Russian Album Jussen BrosThe Russian Album
Lucas & Arthur Jussen
Deutsche Grammophon (arthurandlucasjussen.com/en)

Music scored for two pianos has had an illustrious history – Bach, Mozart and Brahms all wrote compositions for multiple keyboards – and this new recording on the DG label featuring the brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen performing an all-Russian program is further proof of its integrity.

Hailing from Hilversum in the Netherlands, the two brothers – both under 30 – studied with Maria Joäo Pires, made their debut at the ages of 10 and 13, and signed a contract with DG in 2010 while still in their teens. Performances in Europe and the U.S. have received rave reviews and this is their seventh (!) recording. 

Shostakovich wrote his brief Concertino for Two Pianos Op.94 in 1954 for his son – then a student at the Moscow Conservatory – with an eye to performing it together. In keeping with the youthful theme, much of the score is vigorous and lighthearted, providing the two artists ample opportunity to demonstrate flawless technique.

Following are three contrasting movements from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.2 Op.17. While the second movement Waltz and concluding Tarantella are frenetic perpetuum mobiles, the third movement Romance is all heartfelt lyricism. Two movements from Stravinsky’s 1935 Concerto for Two Pianos is another indication that these two artists seem to thrive on repertoire requiring an almost super-human prowess. At all times, the two demonstrate not only an innate understanding of the music, but a seemingly telepathic connection with each other, performing as one.

The disc closes in a lighter vein – the Coquette and the Valse from Arensky’s Suites Nos.1 and 2 for two pianos prove a fitting conclusion to a most satisfying program.

Hans Rott – Orchestral Works Vol.1
Gurzenich Orchester Köln; Christopher Ward
Capriccio C5408 (naxosdirect.com/search/c5408) 

Hans Rott – Orchestral Works Vol.2
Gurzenich Orchester Köln; Christopher Ward
Capriccio C5414 (naxosdirect.com/search/c5414)

16a Hans RottLanguishing in total obscurity for over a century, the music of Hans Rott (1858-1884) first came to light through Gerhard Samuel’s 1989 Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra recording of his Symphony in E Major. Rott’s surviving works date from his time as a student at the Vienna Conservatory, where his classmates included Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Mahler in particular treasured him, proclaiming “He and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree, brought forth by the same soil, nourished by the same air.” Curiously, fugitive thematic references to Rott’s works are echoed in Mahler’s earlier symphonies. Alas, Rott’s fate was not a happy one. The aesthetics of his day were wracked by a cultural war between the progressive advocates of Wagner’s “music of the future” and the traditionalists, devotees of the absolute music of Brahms. Rott, as revealed in this comprehensive survey, would seem to fall between these two camps, but was rejected for his Wagnerian tendencies when submitting his works to competitions. In 1880 he brought his symphony to Brahms himself for his assessment and was rudely told he had no talent whatsoever. This sent him over the edge; not long after he boarded a train on his way to take up a demeaning provincial job as an organist when he spotted a man in the carriage about to light a cigar. He threatened him with a pistol, screaming that Brahms had packed the train with dynamite! Hauled off by the authorities, he spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum, where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

The first volume of these recordings includes a number of Rott’s lesser-known works. There are two overtures, a Prelude to Julius Caesar and the premiere recording of a reconstruction of his Hamlet Overture, along with movements from two unfinished orchestral suites. Stylistically Rott covers a wide ground; yes, there are more than a few stentorian Wagnerian passages, but they are filtered through the lens of his organ teacher Anton Bruckner, his sole advocate amongst the notoriously reactionary Conservatory faculty. The most substantial work is the closing Pastorale Prelude, which ends, somewhat incongruously, with an elaborate fugue. 

16b Hans Rott 2The second volume saves the best for last. The E Major Symphony remains an astonishing achievement, falling just short of the mark due to its rambling finale, reminiscent of (wait for it…) Brahms! It is his most celebrated work, having been recorded a dozen times to date. A three-movement Symphony for String Orchestra in A-flat Major follows, the prim and proper serenades of a 16-year-old tyro aiming to please. The volume concludes with another premiere of sorts, the Symphonic Movement in E Major, an earlier version of the opening of the Symphony

These two volumes, impressively played by the distinguished Gürzenich orchestra, sensitively interpreted by the young English conductor Christopher Ward, and expertly recorded by the Capriccio team, are a must-have item for all enthusiasts of this unjustly neglected composer.

Vaughan Williams – Symphonies 4 & 6
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Antonio Pappano
LSO Live LSO0867D (lsolive.lso.co.uk) 

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.5
BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA68325 (hyperion-records.co.uk) 

17a Vaughan Williams 46The latest release on the LSO Live label, recordings where the orchestra is the major stakeholder, features two symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

Many diehard fans of the Fourth Symphony will point to the 1937 recording, conducted with relentless fury by the composer himself, as the gold standard, but for me, the benchmark recording of this symphony (and, indeed, all of the others) is that of Sir Adrian Boult, who worked closely with RVW for several decades. Pappano’s interpretation equals and at times surpasses these, bringing an appropriate anger and relentlessness to this groundbreaking work.

The same can be said of Pappano’s interpretation of the Sixth Symphony. Composed in four distinct movements without pause, from its opening notes to its life-changing sempre pianissimo finale, you get the feeling that you are hearing a monumental and important symphony from the 20th century. And you are!

The London Symphony Orchestra is no stranger to the works of Vaughan Williams, having recorded the entire cycle of nine symphonies on more than one occasion – the 1970s cycle by André Previn being the most celebrated. And as these are live performances, there is a resulting excitement to the playing that can’t be matched in studio recordings.

I have one small quibble with the otherwise excellent booklet notes: the alternating triads that close the epilogue of the Sixth Symphony are E Minor and E-flat Major sonorities, not E Minor and E Major as noted.

17b Vaughan Williams 5The release of the Fifth Symphony is part of a projected complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the Hyperion label. Brabbins clearly loves this piece and under his baton the themes seem to unfold in a natural, organic way – unhurried, yet with a careful eye on the overall structure of the entire work. The orchestra’s winds sparkle in the second movement and its strings luxuriate in the beauty of the third movement Romanza. Brabbins deftly handles the architecture of the finale, making the cyclical return of the opening seem inevitable and treating the work’s closing pages more like a benediction than a mere coda.

Since the Fifth Symphony contains themes originally composed for RVW’s then-unfinished opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, it seems appropriate to include music from that on this release. The scenes are mostly incidental music, and they don’t hold together as a concert work for me, but as a RVW enthusiast, I am very glad to get to hear music from a work that preoccupied him for over 40 years of his long life.

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